Regarding the Utilitarian Critique of Art and Magic

This writing was originally meant as a response to the argument that we shouldn’t care about the burning of Notre-Dame in light of climate change, global hunger, and other worldwide tragic problems.  It originally appeared as a response post on Studio Arcanis, which I help moderate.

Utilitarian arguments about art are always very easy to make.  Why should we have museums when children are starving?  Museums are expensive.  We could recycle the art and make homeless shelters instead.  Why should we study art history, philosophy, literature, or esotericism?  Those fields won’t give us job skills, won’t put food on the table, don’t have an efficient, profitable, commercial-industrial application. 

This is often an argument made by North Americans, since education beyond high school and health care in the USA cannot ever be taken for granted, efforts by one political faction or another over the years notwithstanding.  So reading philosophy for a Bachelor’s degree seems like a very risky prospect when there is no obvious way to translate that into a livelihood.  And no one wants to starve, which has been referred to as “the great American fear” at least since the Great Depression: ending up helpless, homeless, and unloved because you lost your job and couldn’t provide for your family or your health.

Moreover, anyone who has studied the arts and humanities at university has heard some chortling relative say, “What are you going to do with that?  Ho, ho, ho.”  The person who says it usually does so with maximum scorn because, supposedly, anyone can see how wrong it is to spend precious time and resources on something that will not support you in the future.  It’s a bad return-on-investment.  In the perpetually commodifying business sensibilities of the materialist West, it looks like professional suicide.

It has now become the same argument that says university itself is a bad idea, given that you can apprentice yourself to a trade and avoid both student loan debt and all that “wasted time.”  For many, this is no doubt good advice.  We need our skilled plumbers, electricians, and mechanics.  Some people neither need nor want so-called “higher education” and to force them into a 4-year general degree is both short-sighted and inhumane.  They are content to live fairly well and lead their lives with the satisfaction and comforts of being vocationally skilled—a contentedness that the literature student, even the (extremely lucky) tenured professor, will never feel.

Still, people seek higher study in the arts and humanities because they feel called to do so.  This is not something that can be easily explained to the sneering uncle who installs pools for a living and thinks you’re stupid for reading Beowulf in Old English.  At the family reunion, you simply have to change the subject because he is invariably stuck in his perspective, one that seems like common sense to him. 

No doubt, standing in church with everyone else on Sunday (because that is what is expected of him), he has often heard the famous verse from Matthew 7:7, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” but has never thought to question the doors he has left unopened in his life.  And so, with a closed mind that is highly conditioned by conformist culture, he holds those who are different in contempt.  If he ever wonders about the things he does not understand, it’s only a passing discomfort.

The arts and humanities student, however, lives in constant uncertainty.  It is intrinsic to the study (and production) of creative works.  Contrary to the stereotype of the artist somehow leading a charmed existence where the creativity just flows through him onto the canvas or the page, every step—whether the person is writing essays about Shakespeare’s tragedies, painting landscapes, composing a sonata, or teaching students how to read Homer—is fraught with trouble, effort, and self-doubt.  Finance, engineering, IT, medicine, sales, the trades, and even design are all things this culture more or less accepts and understands.  But the arts, the humanities, and even more esoteric things like comparative spirituality, occultism, and parapsychology exist in the wilderness beyond the safe and the secure.  Most people fear that wilderness.

It has always been this way.  Now let’s think of what sort of contemptuous comments magical practitioners might hear (that sound suspiciously similar to what the art student hears at Christmas dinner).  I will quote from Peter Levenda’s “Prolegomena to a Study of Occultism”:

‘It isn’t real, it’s all in your mind,’ is one of the first snorts of derision that anyone involved in occultism must suffer. ‘It’s nothing but fantasy,’ they say. They know this because they have been told that it is fantasy, that it is not real. They have been told this by their teachers, by pop scientists like Sagan on television, or by their friends. They themselves have not investigated the paranormal at all. Quite often, they are not equipped for such an investigation. What they ‘know’ is what they have been told. You will find that the dullest, most functionally illiterate mental mushroom has a very definite, very ‘scientific’ view on one thing: the impossibility of any kind of psychic phenomena. ‘There ain’t no such things as ghosts,’ might typify one of these brilliant scientific assessments of centuries of human experience. And anyone who ‘believes’ in ghosts is crazy. By linking the twin concepts of belief and the paranormal we arrive at a cogent example of the use of language to alter perception, for we either ‘believe’ or don’t ‘believe’ in ghosts, magic, God, the Devil. There is simply no corresponding approach to plane geometry, the square root of minus 1, or the genetic code. One never asks if one ‘believes’ in the Pythagorean theorem or in any Euclidean theorem (or, for that matter, no one is ever asked whether or not they ‘believe’ that the circumference of a circle contains exactly 360 degrees, even though that number comes down to us from Babylonian mythology and is not the result of ‘scientific observation’).

What they “know” is what they have been told.  Isn’t this always the case on some level?  And yet although people like this remain ignorant about what they have not been told, they often seem determined to give their opinion on it. 

So what can be said in response to a person who argues that the burning of Notre-Dame is not tragic when there is plastic in the ocean and children are starving?  Because he has not felt the beauty of such a place, because his sensibilities are utilitarian and primarily conditioned by the marketplace, because he has not developed a personal aesthetic, you cannot tell him, “Wait, Notre-Dame is a work of great art and high culture.”  He has no idea what that means because he has not been told what to think by an authority he can respect. 

This person should not try to study esotericism.  He should not try to study art.  He should avoid museums and should leave Shakespeare and Milton to the professors.  Instead, he should stick to the things that “everybody knows” because in that he is an expert.

BEHIND the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvellous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practised at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed. Occult philosophy seems to have been the nurse or god-mother of all intellectual forces, the key of all divine obscurities and the absolute queen of society in those ages – when it was reserved exclusively for the education of priests and of kings. 

—Eliphas Levi, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, trans. A.E.Waite, 1896

Codex Whatever: Dark Fluff Occult Books and Personal Insignificance

The fact that there is a “dark fluff” genre of occult writing doesn’t surprise me.  Anyone who starts to look for meaning outside established channels of consensus culture encounters poorly written, poorly sourced occultnik marketing before long (sometimes immediately).  And it has forced most of us to carry on a lifelong search for better materials, more authoritative texts, and generally better sources—which does not automatically mean they must be more scholarly or academic. 

Rather, we tend to prize books that are responsibly and sincerely written according to the tradition in question.  This often means the author has done research to the best of his or her ability and access, but it could simply mean that the anecdotal parts of an occult text are framed as such and the speculation is carefully identified.

The quest for quality occult writing is particularly important to educated ceremonial magicians who care about the provenance and history of their grimoires and of the magical discourse still very much alive and well all over the world.  Like most of my articulate, reasonably sane, magically active associates, I am constantly seeking out new books.  It’s a side of the magical life I particularly enjoy—the research side, which has a magic all its own.

Two great examples of non-scholarly yet well-written and responsible occult texts might be THEE PSYCHICK BIBLE: Thee Apocryphal Scriptures ov Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Thee Third Mind ov Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy.  These two come immediately to mind because they are very explicit about what is unverified gnosis (UPG) and technique.  They set up a teaching dichotomy between anecdote and praxis to empower the reader in her own pursuits—not simply to aggrandize the experiences of the authors.

Unfortunately, for every Joseph Peterson, Jake Stratton-Kent, Jose Leitao, Peter Carroll, Ramsey Dukes, Daniel Harms, and Peter Mark Adams, there are a hundred pretenders, who seem to be writing occult literature simply because it amuses them or makes them feel special.  No one ever got rich off occult publishing.  So the question I’ve asked for years is: why pedal worthless or pirated or wholly fantastical occult books?  Why would someone take the time and effort to claim that they have an insight or that they are the inheritor of a tradition that either does not exist or that they have never encountered outside their own imaginations?

I still don’t have a good answer to this.  The best I can do is come to the sad conclusion that some people need to feel special and wise.  In terms of cynical e-commerce, I can understand groups or individuals trying to interest potential followers by self-publishing low-cost occult books that promote their spiritual systems.  That’s just another form of easily identifiable marketing.  But just as there was a massive surge in poorly written mass-market Wiccan / neopagan texts in the 1980s and early 1990s, there now seems to be a horrendous glut of “dark fluff” grimoires, especially self-published through Createspace and Lulu. 

Last year’s dark grimoires of ultimate power.

So what is “dark fluff”? 

As a sorcerer for hire and a long-time member of the Studio Arcanis community of advanced practitioners, I often get public and private questions that go like this: I just bought Codex Diabolicus Maximus by Mordred Darktoe and I want to use it to destroy my ex’s life.  Does it work?  There is so much wrong with such a question (even in more subtle incarnations like: I’m wondering what your experiences with Darktoe’s works have been . . . ).  It’s one step removed from “spell begging” (where a person who has not done his or her homework asks a more experienced practitioner for a freebie) and it doesn’t reflect well on the questioner regardless of whether or not destroying someone’s life happens to be right or wrong.

As a conjure worker, I’m no stranger to people revealing that their innermost desire is to seek small-minded revenge on someone for some perceived wrong.  Usually, the preferred punishment is far out of proportion to the crime, having to do with a breakup, an undeserved promotion, an insult, or even someone not paying enough attention.  People (maybe most people) feel powerless and insignificant in their lives.  And if they have some kind of latent magical sensitivity but not a lot of confidence, they will seek out a conjure worker to help them get emotional satisfaction on a cruel world.

I understand and I listen to such requests without passing moral judgment.  Part of my job is to bring the client’s motivations and feelings into the light of truth where we can intelligently face them together.  Only then can we fix the situation.  This is the unpublicized part of being a spiritual worker in one’s community (even if that community is online). 

But sometimes the person has so much resentment, feels so belittled by the world, that she wants the power to subjugate everyone and everything: more money, more sex, more power, more revenge, more dominance.  This person has such a wounded ego, feels so wronged by life that she’ll never get enough.  When this happens, she doesn’t come to a sorcerer for work.  She wants to be the sorcerer.  And she falls prey to “dark fluff” occult marketing that seems to speak directly to her overblown desires.

In her lust for power, she’s blinded to the reality that 90% of the information in such texts is bullshit that comes from previously published, often lesser known, bullshit.  And therein lies the problem.  She’s receiving a cascade of dark-themed occultnik bullshit; she really wants it to be real; and she’s soon frustrated that she isn’t seeing results.  That’s usually when she comes slinking around to ask me or someone like me what I think of it because she’s worried that she missed a crucial step (or, gasp, that it is, in fact, utter BS).

Sure, everyone worries that all occult things are fake.  But this is not the sort of anxiety and doubt I’m writing about here.  I’m writing about predatory marketing that magnetizes and preys on the desperate emotions of people who have come to equate power with the ability to harm—because they feel powerless and harmed.  Certainly, I believe that paying back is a virtue and I am in no way against doing dark magic for justice and remediation.  There is a time to bless and a time to curse.  Knowing which is which is part of being a practitioner.  However, having a good BS detector is also essential. 

So how do you spot “dark fluff”?

The first thing I’m going to suggest is that you know yourself.  Self-honesty is very difficult.  Realizing that you feel small and injured and that you want revenge on a cruel world is a strong first step.  You don’t need to go to a spiritual advisor to have this degree of honesty but sometimes it helps.  An insightful stranger can often tell you hard truths that you can’t bare to admit to yourself.

The second thing would be to read widely.  This may mean that sometimes you will purchase occult books that turn out to be part of the BS cascade I mention above.  We all waste our money and time on a well-presented stinker now and then.  And the painful experience of realizing an author is offering you nothing of value is something we’ve all felt.  It’s an important feeling because it sharpens up your sense of what is and is not useful.

The third thing would be to look at the marketing around the book.  Does it talk about a secret tradition that you’ve never heard of, even in online forums?  Does it promise grandiose things, like becoming a living god, torturing your enemies to death, enslaving others, or calling up demons from fancifully named planes or dimensions that have no basis in historical occult literature?  Does it sound like (or even use language directly from) roleplaying games?  Does is present an overdone gothic aesthetic?  Does it seem like it was written in the tradition of “acausal Satanism” (i.e. The Order of the Nine Angles, a group whose vague Gnosticism has made room for many ill-conceived darkly fluffy occult groups and marketing schemes)?  Does it source the works or mythos of HP Lovecraft as if they were real without at least framing them as egregoric or chaos-magical constructions?  Does the author have a pen name out of bad fantasy fiction like “Severus Blackthorne” or something pseudo-Semitic like “Hassan ben Azazel”?  Does the work rely heavily (and usually indirectly, without documentation) on the works of Kenneth Grant, especially The Nightside of Eden, tossing around well-known names like Set, Belial, Samael, Lilith, Lucifer, and  Hekate?  Or, at the other extreme, completely made up “demons” that no one has ever heard of?  Not everything here will indicate “dark fluff” but as soon as you see it, your detector should start beeping.

                                           Not you.

The bottom line.

It’s good to seek power.  It’s good to take revenge when justice is due.  It’s good to pay back in like degree.  It’s also good to do magic, to seek out mysterious realities, states of mind, and uncover secrets.  Consensus culture (especially in the west) would have us believe that the only medium for having breakthroughs is STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  But we know this isn’t the case.

When we truly realize that there is far more occult power in a Delta blues song about going down to the crossroads than in Baltar Venomblade’s Book of the Eternal Abyss, we know we’re making progress.  When we understand that marketing itself is a kind of mental magic that snares all of us from time to time, we can forgive our uninformed purchases of shit occult books and learn to find the good ones that will actually inspire, inform, and guide us further down the path of wisdom and capacity.

Sorcery, Trump, and the Inevitable Death Process

Sauron was become now a sorcerer of dreadful power, master of shadows and of phantoms, foul in wisdom, cruel in strength, misshaping what he touched, twisting what he ruled, lord of werewolves; his dominion was torment.

– Description of Sauron, in The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin

There are sorcerers who will help you and sorcerers who will harm you. But, strangely enough, in a world that doesn’t believe in anything but physics and money, magic takes uncanny and subtle forms. With that in mind, the deadliest sorcerers of all are not those who wear robes and cast spells. Rather, they are those who work with the darkest, most powerful metaphors of this age: money, cynicism, doubt, fear, and bigotry.

Tolkien lived through a time when the rise of modernity had brought forth extremely efficient ways of exterminating or enslaving large groups of people. And his Middle Earth fairy tales gave the West a new mythology, a new language through which hope and goodness could be expressed—since the ancient metaphors of troth, right action, and maat had been largely forgotten or corrupted over time by industry, fascism, spiritual ignorance, and senseless materialism. When Tolkien writes of Sauron (or the Nazgûl Witch King) as being a powerful, dreadful sorcerer opposed by the forces of light and life, he’s talking about operative forces in the 20th century.

Now here we are. And Sauron has won.

In Tolkien’s mythos, Sauron is not Morgoth, not the first or historically greatest expression of evil the world has ever seen. But, for the people of Middle Earth in the Third Age, he certainly is. When the One Ring is destroyed in Mount Doom, the physical incarnation of Sauron dies once and for all. He is reduced permanently to “a spirit of hatred borne on a dark wind” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 211). But he is not gone.

The world we live in exists only analogically to that of myth and fantasy, and in our gray morally relative existence—where nothing is ever absolute or certain and concepts like loyalty, justice, and honor are regularly ground under the relentless tread of ambition, exploitation, and racism—the “spirit of hatred” finds many willing human hosts. It cannot die; it cannot be conclusively defeated. Just as Morgoth gives rise to Sauron’s many incarnations over time, so does the corrupt spirit of hatred and cynicism reemerge in every age of our world. Tolkien believed this when he wrote: “That Sauron was not himself destroyed in the anger of the One is not my fault: the problem of evil, and its apparent toleration, is a permanent one for all who concern themselves with our world” (Letter 211).

It’s a war that every generation has to fight on some level. Our grandparents and great-grandparents fought the Nazis, who now offer us the most accessible comparison to Trump and his followers. But history is full of brutality, ignorance, xenophobia, and institutional violence. One need only do an internet search or open a book on world history. It’s all there. And, historically speaking, dark lords win more often than not.

The knight fights the dragon, the Free Peoples of Middle Earth fight Sauron, until such time as the dragon eats the knight or Sauron regains the Ring. Then, for lack of an enemy, the dragon eats itself and Middle Earth dies covered in darkness. And only then will the world be reborn with new heroes and new dragons. This is the cycle of creation described in every apocalyptic world myth. And we are seeing the Twilight of the Gods now in the 21st century.

And so I leave this message for my gentle and kind friends, many of whom follow spiritual paths of light, life, and love, practicing compassion and living in harmony with nature as best they can: from darkness, new light will come. But it is unlikely that you will live to see it. Rather, as Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming”: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” With the inauguration of Trump, the world enters its inevitable death process.

This is a difficult thing for us to accept. We want to believe that a hero, Frodo maybe or some other embodiment of hope and sincerity, will save us from the end the way the Allies beat the Axis or the way Beowulf defeated Grendel. But the world has already passed the 400 PPM threshold with no signs of abating, indicating that catastrophic environmental, economic, and social repercussions forecasted by (very solid) climate science are inevitable.

Through Trump, the spirit of hatred will rule, preventing the world from recovering. Resources will be put towards bread and circuses. Useless walls will be constructed. Discrimination will prevail. The EPA will be rendered powerless and the poor, sick, and otherwise vulnerable will die. New forms of economic and physical slavery will come into being through the instruments and systems provided by an unchecked corporate culture. Education will become further monetized and the arts and humanities will only be carried on by private individuals if at all. This is the end of the world as we have known it, but it has been coming for a long time.

So what remains for magical people to do? Make peace with your gods. Stop trying to get that promotion or get revenge on your ex or get laid for the umpteenth time (or, for some of you, at all). Cultivate your soul. Meditate more. Work more on the Inner Planes. Forget a lasting legacy for yourself. No one is likely to care or remember you after everything is gone. Do you know the names of more Ancient Romans than you can count on your fingers? Yet the Roman Empire was vast and powerful. It fell, too.

Instead of petty trivial things, focus on spiritual advancement and transcendence in the time you have left. Contemplate the fact that your immortal soul is indestructible. Or, as Hexagram 54 (“The Marrying Maiden”) of the I-Ching puts it: “the superior man/ Understands the transitory/ In the light of the eternity of the end.”

Do that and stand tall when the dragon comes.

The Great Work: Always Forward, Never Back

I’ve known a lot of magicians in my short life. I’m not sure exactly why or when I started drawing magical people to me, but it could simply be coincidental to the time, place, and characteristics of my youth. Then again, it could be because I have Scorpio rising, but I try to avoid relying on assumptions of either coincidence or astrology to explain the vicissitudes of my existence. They both seem like a detour when critical thinking is necessary.

I find “coincidence” to be an unverifiable useless scientistic prop, as dependent on faith as any other metaphysical belief and not very interesting. Instead of scientism, I would rather study the mythologies of the stars which can at least help me build narratives about my life. Coincidence is a belief that shuts down imagination. Astrology is a practice stimulates it, like any good divinatory art.

Still, it is sometimes better to accept the twists and turns of everyday life as they appear on the surface and ask hard direct questions about what is (or what seems to be). Sometimes, it’s valuable to put aside the ephemerides, the scrying bowl, and the tarot cards in favor an objective understanding. This is not something that comes easily to artists or magicians, but it is an indispensable skill to cultivate.

It’s a bit ironic for a magician to stress the value of clearly seeing the surfaces of the mundane world when the main thrust of his work involves engaging with the unseen and the meta-physical. But, as the Master Therion put it when he set forth the mission of Scientific Illuminism, one may reasonably approach “truth” via the “method of science” with the “aim of religion.” I find this to be a very helpful sentiment when facing what Dion Fortune called, “a subject in which there is no standard of criticism and in which each is a law unto himself, claiming, if he be so minded, independent revelation from sources beyond the judgment of human reason” (Sane Occultism 14). In other words, maintaining everyday mental coherence and an awareness of consensus reality has its uses, too.

If you look through the posts on this website, you’ll see me reporting on workings I’ve done with the attitude of an experimenter. Yes, I am confident in certain discoveries and reliable processes, but that doesn’t mean I will ever stop pushing forward into the unknown as a student of the mysteries. This means I’m often more interested in discovering new questions than repeating old answers. At the same time, I reference the writings of great magicians to pay respect to what they have discovered and to remain mindful of their hard-earned insights.

Over the years, I have slipped further and further into the occult demimonde in order to do this work, spending time with conjure workers, houngans, ceremonial magicians, Satanists, monks, psychics, witches, mystics, esoteric scholars, and priests of gods whose names you won’t see posted on billboards by the side of the road. And lately I’ve been communicating with a lot of young people, new Wiccans, beginners who have experienced their first initiatory shocks and who are wondering about these new doorways that have opened before them.

To them, I say: the world is yours. Enjoy these first steps into the unknown. You will never experience wonder the way you do now. Also remember to keep your sense of who are are in mundane society. Being able to walk in multiple worlds and define yourself in multiple contexts is very hard and only gets more difficult the further you progress. But, in my opinion, there is no greater adventure than the path of initiation. It truly is the “hero’s journey,” and the sacrifices you make along the way are ultimately negligible when compared to the greatness of the work.

So mote it be, now and in the years to come.

There is No Room for Authority in Occultism

A nervous crowd is a dangerous thing, and it is a bold man who will lay sacrilegious hands on the popular idols which quiet its fears; but it will not be until we break free from authority in occultism, whether that authority be claimed for the seen or the Unseen, that we shall do any more serious work in this department of thought than the school-men of the Dark Ages did in natural science.

The need of certainty is very strong in human nature; it is only a highly trained mind that is able to suspend judgment on insufficient evidence; but it is better to endure the torture of uncertainty than to believe a lie… . Great is Truth, and shall prevail, and no one who is sincere need fear her.

– Dion Fortune, Sane Occultism